How to Read a Book, Part IV

When one person says, “I love cheese,” and another says, “I love football,” and a third says, “I love mankind,” are they all three using the word in any sense that is common?

With this question, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren illustrate the importance of the fourth and highest level of reading, syntopical reading. If you want to gain thorough understanding about a topic or idea such as love, it is almost never sufficient to read just one book. Instead, you must read several books on that topic by different authors and try to make some sense of the different interpretations you find.

Why should you do this? Part of what it means to be human is to grow and develop, mentally as well as physically. Your mental growth does not (or, at least, should not) cease when you graduate from high school or college; it is a lifelong process. Reading helps you do that, but only if you are reading books that are “over your head” in some respect. Reading purely for amusement (junk novels, popular magazines, or even, dare I say, most news articles), although there is nothing wrong with it, will not make you a better reader unless you are starting from a low level of competency. To grow mentally, you need challenging material such as is found in the great works of the Western tradition. Reading a single work analytically is a great start in this process, but it is when you graduate to syntopical reading, which demands more from you, that you have made it to the “big leagues” of reading.

How does one handle this level of reading? I’ll use a personal example to illustrate. Part of my comprehensive exam process as a doctoral student was to write a 50-page essay on Renaissance humanism. The purpose of the essay was to offer a definition for the term. Obviously, my professors had in mind something more than a simple dictionary entry. To complete the project, I had to read several books by respected scholars of the Renaissance period and synthesize what they all said. These authors all differed in their interpretations of what Renaissance humanism was, but they agreed on certain points, too. I had to put all those things together and then offer my own interpretation of this topic.

Although when I wrote that paper I had not yet encountered How to Read a Book, for the most part I actually followed the procedure they recommend for syntopical reading:

  1. Put together a bibliography of books on the subject and read them all inspectionally to make sure they’re appropriate.
  2. Identify key terms that the authors use and agree on. Since you are dealing with multiple authors, you must create the frame of reference here and impose some order on the varying definitions your authors employ.
  3. Formulate a set of questions that your authors appear to be dealing with, for example, “What was the relationship between humanist and scholastic philosophers in the Renaissance?”
  4. Identify the key issues by figuring out the different answers to these questions offered by your authors. Where do they agree and disagree? Often authors offer different answers because they conceive the questions differently.
  5. See whether the conflict of opposing answers leads to any new questions or discoveries.

The first four steps correspond to things you do in the lower levels of reading, but the last one is unique to syntopical reading, and it can lay the groundwork for future progress in your understanding.

In the Great Books of the Western World set, which Adler edited, there are two volumes labeled “The Syntopicon.” These volumes are essentially master indexes of passages dealing with “great ideas” Adler has identified, such justice, peace, and love. They are a tremendous aid to readers wanting to dig into a particular theme. Each entry in the Syntopicon also has an extensive bibliography of works that relate to that theme, but are not part of the Great Books set.

I hope that you’ve found this series of posts on How to Read a Book informative, and that you’ll consider reading it in its entirety if you haven’t already. I should point out that the book’s appendices contain some useful exercises for developing your skills at the lower levels of reading.

If you want to learn more about Adler or the ideas behind the Great Books approach to reading, check out the comment threads in the earlier posts of this series. Max Weismann of Adler’s foundation has been spamming me with ads! I’ve approved the comments because I think they could actually be helpful to people reading this.

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About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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